You are here

Counterpunch

Subscribe to Counterpunch feed
Tells the Facts, Names the Names
Updated: 3 hours 18 min ago

“Heady Stuff:” The Wall Street, Inflation and the CPI

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:33

The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page has never been a place where reality is a binding constraint. Andy Kessler demonstrates this fact in a column that tells us that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) overstates the true rate of inflation by at least 2.0 percentage points annually and possibly as much as 5.0 percentage points.

The immediate basis for this observation is an interview Alan Greenspan gave in which he said:

“Because products are continuously changing, ….. when new products go on the market, they come in at relatively high prices. Henry Ford’s Model T came in at a very high price, and the price went down as technology improved. You didn’t start to pick up the price level until well into that declining phase.”

“So there is a bias in the statistic. You’re getting statistics which are not correct. … If you had a 2% inflation rate as currently measured, it’s the equivalent of zero for actually what consumers are buying.”

As Kessler describes it, “pretty heady stuff from the former Fed head.”

Perhaps, but it’s hardly new. Greenspan made the same observation more than a quarter-century ago. He told Congress back then that the CPI overstates inflation by at least 1.0 percentage point, and possibly as much as 2.0 percentage points. He suggested that Congress could use this alleged fact as a way to reduce the budget deficit, since Social Security payments (post-retirement) were linked to the CPI, as were income tax brackets. If the annual inflation adjustment in these measures was 1.0-2.0 percentage points lower, it would drastically reduce Social Security benefits over time and raise a great deal of tax revenue.

Congress picked up on Greenspan’s testimony and created a commission chaired by Michael Boskin, the head of the Council of Economic Advisers under the first President Bush. The commission concluded that the CPI overstated inflation by 1.1 percentage points annually, based largely on research from the 1960s, which made the same argument that Kessler cited from Greenspan. In other words, the claim that the CPI misses the wonderful benefits of technology is more than half a century old.

In addition to being an old argument, this is also largely an incorrect argument. While Greenspan asserts that when a new product comes onto the market it is priced very high and then the price falls sharply, but “you didn’t start to pick up the price level until well into that declining phase.”

Greenspan may not remember, but because its own research has identified this problem, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began to accelerate the rate at which new products are introduced into the index. It reconstructs its basket annually and important new products are likely to enter the index after just a few months.

It’s also worth noting that insofar as this story of rapid price decline in new products leads to an overstatement in the cost of living, it is only for the rich. Take the famous example of the cell phone, which slipped through the cracks and did not enter the index until 1996, when close to 40 percent of households owned one. While this 40 percent benefited from the sharp drop in prices from well over $1000 to $200, the 60 percent who still did not own a cell phone did not benefit from the drop in prices. They were making the decision that even at a price of $200, they had better uses for their money.

Due to changes in methods, there will not be another product like the cell phone that can achieve mass adoption before getting in the CPI, but there may still be extremely expensive new items purchased by the rich, which drop rapidly in price in the few months before they are introduced into the CPI. Insofar as this is the case, we are overstating the rate of inflation experienced by the rich, which would be an argument for a lower indexation figure for top tax brackets, thereby subjecting more of their income to a higher tax rate.

It is also worth noting all the factors that suggest the CPI understates inflation. BLS does make major efforts to measure quality improvements, but it undoubtedly misses some. But it also misses deterioration in quality. Most people would probably say the quality of air travel has deteriorated over the last three decades with smaller seats, more crowded planes, and having long waits in security lines. This deterioration has been largely overlooked in the CPI.

Also while new technologies offer great benefits, they also impose costs. It would be very difficult to get by these days without a cell phone or access to the Internet. Yet the cost of owning a cell phone and the cost of access to the Internet do not figure into the CPI. It only picks up changes in these costs, not the fact that new technologies have imposed large additional costs on households.

Any serious analysis of the CPI as a measure of the cost of living will show biases on both sides. Politically motivated people can just cite one side to push their agenda, but this sort of stuff need not be taken seriously outside of the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section.

This article first appeared on Dean Baker’s blog.

The Wilderness Compromisers

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:14

Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold, and Olaus Murie, legendary biologists and founders of The Wilderness Society (TWS), must be crying in their graves.

When Marshall founded the Wilderness Society, he wrote: “We do not want those whose first impulse is to compromise. We want no (fence) straddlers for in the past they have surrendered too much good wilderness and primeval areas which should never have been lost.“

Marshall would have been chagrined and dismayed to see that the Wilderness Society he founded to fight for wildlands is now among the compromisers he feared.

In a May 10th editorial on the future of the Gallatin Range Wildlands in the Bozeman Chronicle, TWS’s Travis Belote advocated for support of the Gallatin Forest Partnership (GFP) proposal that would designate less than half 1/2 of the Gallatin Range roadless lands (about 102,000 acres out of a possible 230,000 acres) as wilderness.

The GFP leaves out the ecologically critical Buffalo Horn-Porcupine drainages (BHP) and West Pine area from any wilderness proposal. Lying along the northern border of Yellowstone, the BHP is a vital link that connects Yellowstone with the points further north in the Gallatin Range and west into the Madison Range. The West Pine area on the northern end of the Gallatin Range is also an essential linkage that will help make it easier for wildlife to move between the northern Gallatin Range and Bridger Mts.

In the soon to be finalized Custer Gallatin National Forest Draft Forest Plan Alternative D would recommend the Buffalo Horn-Porcupine drainages as wilderness, as well as many other fine wildlands, but sadly TWS, as well as other compromisers like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Montana Wilderness Association, are not advocates of Alt. D.

The Wilderness Society “straddlers” are championing a proposal that would feature mountain biking, motorized uses, and perhaps even logging under the guise of forest health in the most critical and biologically important drainages of the Gallatin Range.

The May 10th essay talks about including all the stakeholders but ignores the voiceless stakeholders–the wildlife from grizzlies to bighorn to Wolverine to elk that rely on wildlands for their habitat.

Wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is increasingly under stress from human encroachment. Recreation is not conservation. Supporting a proposal that allows the best wildlife habitat like the BHP to be a playground for mountain bikers and other recreational “stakeholders” is a crime.

There are plenty of places to ride a bike, but there are few places where grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, elk, and other wildlife can roam. Can’t we at least give them a little bit of room to roam?

If the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine areas are left out of the future Gallatin Range Wilderness and is nothing more than into a mountain bike playground, that will be TWS, GYC, and MWA’s legacy.

That is a legacy that would sadden Bob Marshall and the other founders of the Wilderness Society.

I think I hear their cries.

Israel/America or Netanyahu/Trump?

Wed, 2019-05-15 16:02

Photograph Source: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem – CC BY 2.0

The late Uri Avnery (1923-2018), the doughty Israeli seeker of peace with the Palestinian people, posted almost weekly on CounterPunch.

Avnery was savvy enough to know that the Zionist failure to achieve peace with the Palestinians meant that Israel could never be a “normal” state, no matter how much it pretended, hypocritically, to be a “democracy” adhering to “Western values”.

Avnery would have been aghast, but not surprised, at the turn of events taking place shortly before or after his death– Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (both Palestine and Israel claim Jerusalem as their capital, and it will take a peace deal, and not unilateral action on Israel’s part, in order resolve this dispute); closing down the Palestine Liberation Organisation office in Washington; reducing direct aid and aid to the UN agency aiding Palestinian refugees; recognizing Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan Heights; and supporting Netanyahu in his recent pledge to begin annexing Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank.

The aid reductions involved cutting $200 million in direct aid to Gaza and the West Bank and the freezing of another $300 million dollars provided annually to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

After Ramadan, taking place currently, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will announce what Trump, with characteristic carnival-barker hyperbole, calls the “deal of the century”.

Leaks hint that Kushner will announce plans for significant investment in Gaza and the West Bank, provided by the Saudis and other Arab states– despots and in some cases murderers eager to cosy-up to Trump.

Kushner himself has touted “a very good business plan with a strong economic component for how Palestinians can move forward economically”, sheerly ignorant of the likelihood that an economic plan, no doubt with strings (or rather chains) attached, will fail if it is not accompanied by a lasting political solution. The latter will not exist as long as Israel persists in grabbing Palestinian land for its settlements, and subjecting its own Arab citizens to a form of apartheid. The US has so far fallen in line with all of this.

Kushner’s “deal” will almost certainly be belly-up on arrival. His father-in-law will of course blame the Palestinians for spurning such “gifts” and the accompanying chance for “peace”.

Trump’s administration recently prevented the BDS cofounder Omar Barghouti from entering the US to embark on a speaking tour, even though Barghouti has a valid US visa until 2021.

Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS movement, is committed to non-violence, but his denial of entry was welcomed by many US Zionists eager to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-semitism.

Regarding Barghouti, the New York congressman Lee Zeldin, a Republican, tweeted: “This foreigner is filled w/anti-Israel & anti-Semitic hatred. We should reject Omar Barghouti’s hate, reject the BDS movement, & reject his many examples of blatant anti-Semitism”.

In February Barghouti was listed in a report—titled “terrorists in suits”– published by Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. The report describes BDS “as a complementary effort” to “armed attacks against the State of Israel”. Barghouti has however never been charged with a crime by Israel.

At least 27 states in the US have introduced laws to combat BDS activism. Earlier this year, the US Senate passed an anti-BDS billthat would allow state and city governments to terminate contracts with US entities that support the BDS movement.

In 2018, Bahia Amawi, a Palestinian-American speech pathologist, filed a lawsuit against the Pflugerville Independent School District in Austin, Texas, and the Texas state attorney general, after she had been forced out of the job she had for 9 years for refusing to sign a pro-Israel pledge in her contract.

Amawi saidin a radio interview that she didn’t “want to support [Israel’s] ongoing occupation and aggression and subhumane treatment of the Palestinians, that’s making me kind of like a silent participant complicit with the whole occupation”.

Amawi’s lawyer said in the same radio interview: “Bahia would be disqualified from working for any school district in the state that’s following this law, simply because she chooses not to buy, for instance, Sabra hummus. So her grocery store decision to not buy Sabra hummus and to buy instead another kind of hummus automatically, under this law, disqualifies her from all public employees—all public employment of all kinds”.

Trump and Kushner clearly believe their “deal of the century” will help “normalize” dealings between the Palestinians and their ethnocidal colonial occupier, even though nothing is “normal” when it comes to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people.

Trump believes, or did believe, that his photo-ops with Kim of North Korea would likewise “normalize” relations between their respective countries.

Even right-wing commentators now say Trump is deluded about Kim.

So Trump’s delusions over the “deal of the century”, in the Middle East, will not be a first, and the odds are that they won’t be the last, whether concerning North Korea, or Palestine, or Robert Kraft (the owner of the New England Patriots football team), or….

Europe is Powerless in Growing Conflict Between the US and Iran

Wed, 2019-05-15 16:00

Photograph Source: rockcohen – CC BY-SA 2.0

Brexiteers in Britain are denouncing the EU as an all-powerful behemoth from whose clutches Britain must escape, just as the organisation is demonstrating its failure to become more than a second-rate world power.

The EU’s real status – well behind the US, Russia and China – has just been demonstrated by its inability to protect Iran from US sanctions following President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal of 2015. A year ago, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron made humiliating visits to Washington to plead vainly with Trump to stay with the agreement, but were rebuffed.

Since then the US has successfully ratcheted up economic pressure on Iran, reducing its oil exports from 2.8 to 1.3 million barrels a day. The UK, France and Germany had promised to create a financial vehicle to circumvent US sanctions, but their efforts have been symbolic. Commercial enterprises are, in any case, too frightened of the ire of the US treasury to take advantage of such measures.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday that Iran would stop complying with parts of the nuclear deal unless the Europeans provided the promised protection for the oil trade and banks. Everybody admits that Iran is in compliance but this is not going to do it any good.

These are the latest moves in the complex political chess game between the US and Iran which has been going on since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. It is this conflict – and not the US-China confrontation over trade, which has just dramatically escalated – which will most likely define any new balance of power in the world established during the Trump era. It is so important because – unlike the US-China dispute – the options include the realistic possibility of regime change and war.

The Europeans have proved to be marginal players when it comes to the Iran deal and it was never likely that they would spend much more diplomatic capital defending it once the US had withdrawn. In the long term, they also want regime change in Tehran, though they oppose Trump’s methods of obtaining it as reckless. Nevertheless, the contemptuous ease with which Trump capsized the agreement shows how little he cares what EU leaders say or do.

The Europeans will be spectators in the escalating US-Iran conflict. The US potential is great when it comes to throttling the Iranian economy. Iranian oil exports are disappearing, inflation is at 40 per cent and the IMF predicts a 6 per cent contraction in the economy as a whole. The US can punish banks dealing with Iran everywhere, including countries where Iran is politically strong such as Iraq and Lebanon.

Tehran does not have many effective economic countermeasures against the US assault, other than to try to out-wait the Trump era. Caution has worked well for Iran in the past. After 2003, Iranians used to joke that God must be on their side because why else would the US have overthrown Iran’s two deeply hostile neighbours – the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Many Iranian leaders appear confident that they can survive anything Trump can throw at them other than a full-scale shooting war. Past precedent suggests they’re right: in the wars in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982, Iran came out on top and helped created Hezbollah as the single most powerful political and military force in the country. Likewise, after the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran undermined their occupation and saw a Shia-led government sympathetic to its interests hold power in Baghdad. In Syria after 2011, Iranian support was crucial in keeping its ally Bashar al-Assad in control.

Iran was on the winning side in these conflicts in part because of mistakes made by its opponents, but these will not inevitably happen again. Because the media and much of the political establishment in Washington and western capitals are so viscerally anti-Trump, they frequently underestimate the effectiveness of his reliance on American economic might while avoiding military conflict. At the end of the day, the US Treasury is a more powerful instrument of foreign policy than the Pentagon for all its aircraft carriers and drones.

Trump may not read briefing papers, but he often has a better instinct for the realities of power than the neo-conservative hawks in his administration who learned little from the Iraq war which they helped foment.

So long as Trump sticks with sanctions he is in a strong position, but if the crisis with Iran becomes militarised then the prospects for the US become less predictable. Neither Tehran nor Washington want war, but that does not mean they will not get one. Conflicts in this part of the Middle East are particularly uncontrollable because there are so many different players with contrary interests.

This divergence produces lots of wild cards: Trump is backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but these oil states have had a dismal record of operational incapacity in Syria and Yemen.

The Iranians, for their part, have had their successes where their fellow Shia are the majority (Iraq), the largest community (Lebanon) or are in control of government (Syria). Given that they are a Shia clerical regime, it is always difficult for them to extend their influence beyond the Shia core areas.

Benjamin Netanyahu has led the charge in demonising Iran and encouraging the US to see it as the source of all evil in the Middle East. But Netanyahu’s belligerent rhetoric against Iran has hitherto been accompanied with caution in shifting to military action, except against defenceless Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

A danger is that a permanent cold or hot war between Washington and Tehran will become the vehicle for other conflicts that have little to do with it. These would include the escalating competition between Saudi Arabia and Turkey over the leadership of the Sunni world. Turkey’s independent role would be threatened by an enhancement of US power in the region. So too would Russia which has re-established its status as a global power since 2011 by its successful military support for Assad in Syria.

Trump hopes to force Tehran to negotiate a Carthaginian peace – particularly useful if this happens before the next US presidential election – under which Iran ceases to be a regional power. Regime change would be the optimum achievement for Trump, but is probably unattainable.

If Trump sticks to economic war it will be very difficult for Iran to counter him, but in any other scenario the US position becomes more vulnerable. There is an impressive casualty list of British and US leaders – three British prime ministers and three US presidents – over the last century who have suffered severe or fatal political damage in the Middle East. Trump will be lucky if he escapes the same fate.

A Criminal Affair: United States Imposes War on the Venezuelan People

Wed, 2019-05-15 16:00

Illustration by Nathaniel St. Clair

To replace Venezuela’s government with one to its liking, the United States uses special war-making tools. The plan is to make Venezuelans suffer enough so that, desperate, they will accept whatever government is presented. Troops and weapons aren’t required. That approached worked in Chile in 1973, but so far in Cuba it hasn’t – after almost 60 years.

The process has advanced. Citing a report from Venezuela’s National Survey on Living Conditions, analysts Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs noted recently that 40,000 more Venezuelans died in 2018 than in 2017. The death rate jumped by 31 percent.

The purpose here is to establish that the U.S. government actually intends to make Venezuelans suffer.  U.S. deeds and officials’ words are revealing. Those responsible need to be called to account.

Interviewed on October 19, 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conceded that U.S. sanctions against Venezuela “sometimes have an adverse impact on the people of Venezuela.”  But on March 11, 2019 he was celebrating: “The circle is tightening, the humanitarian crisis is increasing by the hour. I talked with our senior person on the ground there in Venezuela last night … You can see the increasing pain and suffering that the Venezuelan people are suffering from.”

Answering a reporter’s question in early 2018 about U.S. policies on Venezuela, a U.S. Embassy official in Mexico City commented that“The economic sanctions we’ve imposed on the Venezuelan government have caused it to stop making payments as much on its sovereign debt as on PDVSA, its oil company … we are seeing a total economic collapse … Therefore, our policy is working.”

Interviewed later that year, former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield declared that, “If we are going to sanction PDVSA, it will have an impact on the entire people … [A]t this moment perhaps the best resolution would be to accelerate the collapse, even if it produces a period of suffering of months or perhaps years”.

Beginning in 2014, the U.S. government instituted economic sanctions. Venezuela was vulnerable. Oil prices had plummeted and inflation had skyrocketed. Contributing to inflation were reduced oil prices, hoarding of merchandise by commercial interests, andcurrency manipulation, which, according to Venezuelan economist Pasqualina Curcio, “is one of the main weapons of war that imperialism has used.”

From 2014 on, Venezuela’s economy contracted by more than 50 percent. Oil production, two million barrels per day in 2017, had fallen to 431,000 bpd by March, 2019. Oil exports provide the government with 95 percent of its income, which pays for social support.Venezuela importstwo thirds of the food consumed there. Difficulties in paying for imported food promote suffering.

Economic sanctions became a weapon of war. Countries now aligned against Venezuela once supplied 46 percent of the medicines needed there, with the United States providing 34 percent. Those countries were the source of 45 percent of food imported by Venezuela; the United States accounted for 33 percent.

Trouble mounted for Venezuelans after the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 113-278 in December, 2014. It authorized the president to use executive action to “impose … sanctions … with respect to any foreign person … acting on behalf of [Venezuela’s] Government.” The term “foreign person” applies to banks and financial institutions abroad.

Sanctions were announced in March, 2015 (by President Obama) and in April 2017; March, May, November of 2018; and January, March, and April of 2019.Theytarget income generated from Venezuela’s oil exports, assets abroad; access to imported goods and credit; and ability to secure, reschedule, or repay loans. Foreign banks are crucial to U.S. purposes. U.S. dollars are the currency of choice in international trade, and Venezuela must use dollars. To avoid penalties, the banks enforce U.S. mandates on transactions involving dollars.

Beginning in 2016, banks refused to handle Venezuelan transactions. They included Commerzbank of Germany, Credit Suisse, the Panamanian and Shandong branches of the Bank of China, Germany’s Deutsche Bank, Citibank, Novo Banco in Portugal, and Russian banks. Sanctions in January 2019 barred U.S. financial institutions from facilitating foreign sales of Venezuelan oil and gold.

Comprehensive reports from economist Pasqualina Curcio and by others detail multiple instances of foreign banks refusing to process individual Venezuelan purchase orders. Among them are: 300,000 vials of insulin, food costing $29.7 million destined for the government’s food-support program, another order of, food, medicines and other supplies costing $39 million, and a $9 million intended purchase of dialysis equipment for 15,000 patients.  

Sanctions also blocked delivery of blood products for hemophilia patients, immunoglobulin for 200 children with Kawasaki disease, equipment for surgical repair of congenital heart malformations, and hospital drugs and anesthetic supplies obtainable in Turkey. JP Morgan held up $28.1 million to have been used for leasing food transport ships.

U.S. sanctions also led to the immobilizing – actually stealing – of Venezuelan resources through which citizens might have been protected from sickness and food shortage. Citibank, the Bank of London, Novo Banco, Japan’s Sumitomo bank, North Street Capital (a hedge fund firm), and the Bank of England confiscated Venezuelan assets. The latter bank holds onto Venezuelan gold worth $1.36 billion.

Targeting the state-owned PDVSA oil company, U. S. sanctions in January, 2019 enabled the confiscation of $7 billion in assets belonging to PDVSA’s U.S. affiliate CITGO. The fiction was presented of their transfer to the nonexistent government of U.S. puppet Juan Guaidó. Through sanctions, Venezuela’s government lost access to CITGO income and dividends valued at $11 billion, also to imported diluents, other additives, and repair materials – all essential for producing oil.

Weisbrot and Sachs report that as late as 2018 the United States purchased 35.6 percent of Venezuela’s oil exports. Sanctions now block imports of PDVSA oil by U.S. refineries and those of other countries. U.S. sanctions interfere with payments from third countries on imported Venezuelan oil.

Pasqualina Curcio reports that since 2013 U.S. “coercive measures” have deprived Venezuela of $114.3 billion. Of this, $92.9 billion are losses due to inflation and reduced oil production. The remaining loss of $21.5 billion stems from “unilateral coercive measures, financial blockades, commercial embargoes, and the theft of CITGO assets and other resources.”

Now Venezuela’s government can’t pay for food, medicines, and hospital and school supplies. It can’t rehabilitate water and electricity systems. According to Weisbrot and Sacks, food imports in 2018 amounted to “just $2.46 billion,” down from “$11.2 billion in 2013.” The likelihood of further decline in 2019 implies that “people with untreated HIV, diabetes, kidney failure, severe hypertension, certain types of cancer – 300,000 in all – are at extreme risk of death.” Recent sanctions represent “a death sentence for tens of thousands of Venezuelans.”

They point out that in 2019, “Imports of goods are projected to fall by 39.4 percent, from $10 billion to $6.1 billion.” Oil income will be 67 percent lower than in 2018.  What’s happening is“collective punishment of the civilian population.”

Rapporteur and “independent expert” Alfred de Zayas in September, 2018 submitted a comprehensive report on Venezuela to the United Nations Council on Human Rights. It highlights U.S. violations of international law. At issue are “principles of non-intervention and non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.” He mentions U.S. disregard for the United Nations Charter, the General Assembly’s Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States adopted in 1974, the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, and various General Assembly resolutions.

But more to the point: the U.S. government is abusing innocent Venezuelan people, and many die. U.S. officials, it seems here, engage in crimes against humanity. They disregard precepts of moral law.

To be violating prevailing ethical and legal norms apparently doesn’t matter to the U.S. government. But in an alternative world of justice, they do matter. A first step in making things right would be to bring into public view the purposes of U.S. intervention in Venezuela and methods being used. Ideally, the notion would get around that for current U.S. leaders, Venezuela’s oil and U.S. regional domination mean more than does human survival. Calling them to account would come next – in theory.

What’s possible is to approach some of those who have gotten a pass on complicity with crime. They would be the congresspersons who voted for Public Law 113–278 and/or aren’t dealing with its grim consequences.  Living in all states, they are accessible.

When those activists now fending off sham diplomats at Venezuela’s Embassy in Washington eventually leave, they and others, logically, would get into a traveling mode. Congresspersons would be confronted in their states with demands to undo the Law.

Is Emergency Evacuation from Seabrook Reactor Even Possible? Public Hearings Demanded

Wed, 2019-05-15 15:57

Ever wonder if the nuclear reactor near you has an evacuation plan that would work in an emergency? Have you ever been stuck in barely moving traffic on an interstate highway even when there was no crisis, no sirens, and no panic?

People driving Interstate-95 near the Seabrook reactor in New Hampshire have, and they have reason to worry, especially after the nonprofit group We the People and its founder Stephen Comley produced “No Evacuation Possible,” a public service video of routine summertime traffic jams on I-95 — Seabrook’s disaster escape route, and warning of the impossibility of an evacuation in the event of an accident at Seabrook.

One wonders how many other nuclear reactors have a single evacuation route that is frequently, even routinely, rendered nonfunctional. Commercial reactors are required by law to have a workable escape plan.

In January 2018, the town of Merrimac, Mass. joined half a dozen other communities calling on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to hold a hearing on whether Seabrook’s evacuation plan can be effectively implemented.

Reactor owner NextEra Energy Resources issued a Jan. 20, 2018 response/nonresponse in which it failed to address evacuation issues: “We have extensive emergency response systems in place,” the firm said, “including numerous back-up safety systems that provide our plants with layer upon layer of both automated and manual protection….”

Right. And—as with other catastrophic commercial nuclear power accidents, what if those back-ups fail and emergency evacuation is required?

NextEra’s dismissive position has helped We the People’s public warnings gain traction. Major state politicians and municipalities that are within what Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has called — in a Feb. 26, 2019 letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — “the 50-mile Ingestion Exposure Pathway Emergency Planning Zone” have begun raising their own alarms.

Massachusetts State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and State Representative Brad Hill wrote to State Attorney General Maura Healey October 10, 2018, complaining of “constituent inquiries” about Seabrook’s evacuation plan. The lawmakers reported that the public “has become increasingly concerned about effectively evacuating the area in the event [of] a nuclear emergency,” and noted that “drone-recorded video of the Hampton Beach during the summer tourist season … shows the heavy traffic congestion on the seacoast.”

We the People has also won resolutions from half a dozen local towns and city councils in Massachusetts and New Hampshire calling on state and federal agencies to convene a public hearing where emergency first responders could try and explain the Seabrook emergency evacuation plan.

Last September 25, New Hampshire State Representative Peter Schmidt wrote to AG Healey about the “urgency” of having first responders “testify as to the plans and possibilities for safely, effectively and expeditiously evacuating the seacoast in the event of a nuclear emergency.” Several municipalities within the evacuation zone have “strongly endorsed We the People’s call for this first responder hearing,” Schmidt wrote.

Representative Schmidt’s letter raised two additional issues that We the People has brought to light. What Schmidt called “some sort of gag order” has allegedly been imposed on Massachusetts State Police officers and the New Hampshire National Guard members, forbidding them from speaking about evacuation issues.

Mr. Comley personally made a formal, recorded presentation regarding the question of the alleged gag order to the Massachusetts State Police on September 2, 2016. Then, according to a February 14, 2018 letter by Christina Lucin of the State Patrol’s Fraud Identification Unit, the record of the proceedings were “lost.” Consequently, Representative Schmidt complained to AG Healey: “[T]he disappearance of the record is very troubling.”

Seabrook is 13 miles south of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and 40 miles north of Boston, large cities within the “ingestion exposure” zone. In March 2011, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recommended the evacuation of all US residents from within 50 miles of the three Fukushima reactor meltdowns in Japan.

The Seabrook reactor is set between the towns of Seabrook and Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, a mere 1.2 miles east of Interstate 95. Hampton Beach and its popular state park are only 1.6 miles to the east.

So far, AG Healey has still not agreed to schedule a public hearing for first responders to speak about their concerns over the plausibility of emergency evacuation. We the People and seven local municipalities in the Emergency Planning Zone are still waiting to hear from the Attorney General’s office.

There are 98 commercial nuclear power reactors in the US. How many would effectively become weapons of mass destruction if an accident or a terrorist bomb made emergency evacuation both necessary and impossible?

The Threat of Political Climate Change

Wed, 2019-05-15 15:56


In the Americas, the Trump tsunami has swept across both continents and the “pink tide” of progressivism has all but disappeared from the southern half of the hemisphere. In Europe, with the recent exception of Spain, the left has been banished to the political margins. In Africa and Asia, socialism has devolved into nationalism, authoritarianism, or just plain corruption. And forget about the Middle East.

In this planet-wide rising tide of right-wing populism, the liberal left commands only a few disconnected islands — Iceland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea, Spain, Uruguay. In so many other places, increasingly illiberal leaders are in charge. Add up the numbers and significantly more than half the world’s population currently lives under some form of right-wing populist or authoritarian rule, courtesy of Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Xi Jinping in China, among others.

Optimists cling to the pendulum theory of politics: conservatives are now basking in the limelight, but the day will come when the right inevitably falls on its face and the left swings back into action; witness the results of the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States.

In addition, pragmatists point out that many of these latter-day autocrats, for all their anti-democratic tendencies, came to power through elections. Yes, they have since sought to change constitutions, pack courts, muzzle the media, and crack down on civil society, but they remain constrained by the guardrails of the more-or-less liberal political systems they still run. In the end, so goes such thinking, democracy will prevail. Look at how, over time, some right-wing populists have been dislodged at the polls (Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia), brought down by corruption scandals (Alberto Fujimori in Peru), or forced to resign in disgrace (Silvio Berlusconi in Italy).

Optimists and pragmatists alike ultimately have faith that democracies are self-regulating organisms, not unlike the Earth’s ecosystem. The planet has managed to survive countless asteroid strikes, solar flares, and extreme weather conditions. Democracy, too, will outlast Hurricane Donald and all the other examples of extreme political weather, thanks, sooner or later, to woke voters and resilient mechanisms of checks and balances.

Unfortunately, given the malign impact humans are having on the planet, this analogy is far less reassuring than it once might have been. Only the willfully ignorant expect that some natural oscillation in global temperature or the Earth’s own adjustments to its climate feedback loops will arrive in time to save us. Humankind has clearly thrown a spanner into the works and now faces a distinctly difficult, if not disastrous, future. Similarly, across the globe, the electoral pendulum appears to be stuck on the side of reaction and the new generation of right-wing populists could well be on the verge of changing the political playing field, just as humans are in the process of irrevocably transforming the planet.

Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Putin, Trump, and their ilk should indeed be understood as the political equivalent of global warming. Instead of deadly carbon, they spew hateful invective and show a remarkable determination to destroy a far-from-perfect status quo.  Moreover, they are the product not of farting livestock or extraterrestrial events but of the self-interested acts of blinkered humans. In an increasingly restrictive political space, liberals and progressives are looking ever more like so many polar bears on ever fewer ice floes, with diminishing room for maneuver.

Don’t bet on politics as usual to lower the temperature and put a stop to this moment’s tidal surge of ugly intolerance. Because the nature of the game has changed, those who oppose the global New Right must engage in a strategic rethink — or we’ll all drown in the rising waters.

The Game Changers

Today’s autocrats are, at first glance, a diverse band of brothers.

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has attacked the Catholic Church for defending the sanctity of human life and challenging his campaign of extrajudicial murder. In Nicaragua, one-time revolutionary Daniel Ortega has courted the Catholic Church as a pillar of his undemocratic rule. Vladimir Putin presents himself and his country as saviors of Christianity, while Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to promote his own brand of political Islam, Narendra Modi has ridden to power thanks to Hindu nationalism, and Xi Jinping eschews religion altogether. Some right-wing nationalists like Bolsonaro have ambitious plans to privatize state assets, while others, like those in Italy’s current leadership, want to nationalize major properties. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is concerned about climate change, but most right-wing populists like Donald Trump insist that the threat doesn’t exist and want to extract ever more fossil fuels.

Don’t be fooled, though. While these leaders may not rhyme, they all dance to the same rhythm.

These illiberal politicians have uniformly come to power by attacking globalization. They have criticized the neo-liberal transformations of the recent past that enriched the few at the expense of the many, while challenging the major political parties of the center left and center right that implemented the economic reforms that unleashed such forces. They have taken aim at the corruption that has metastasized in political systems already ill equipped to handle a massive uptick in cross-border financial transactions. When politically useful, they have demonized immigrants and refugees who are one side effect of, as well as victims of, that very burgeoning globalization movement. They have championed national sovereignty against the interventions of multilateral organizations, while blasting multicultural values and the human-rights groups that promote them. And they have taken advantage of social media like Facebook and Twitter that promote a version of participatory totalitarianism in which individuals can freely relinquish their privacy and abandon conventional news media for daily dispatches from their favorite celebrity autocrat.

Election results in the world’s most populous democracies suggest that liberalism — in its free-market economic form and its more tolerant, inclusive, and statist political version – has become discredited at a popular level. A quick glance at the titles of some recent books (Why Liberalism Failed, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, How Democracies Die, What Was Liberalism) reveals that the chattering classes, too, have noticed this global trend.

The Trumps of this world have cannily identified a fundamental shift in the political playing field, rushing into the gap created by the declining popularity of liberal values. Viktor Orban set an early example of such opportunism when, in the 1990s, he jettisoned his liberal past and opted instead for the right side of the Hungarian political spectrum. In the aftermath of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the left and right had alternated in power as voters became disgusted with whatever party controlled the levers of state. By successfully linking all the ills facing the country to liberals and their follies, however, Orban became the one to preside over a genuine transformation of the political landscape. The premier liberal party, the Alliance of Free Democrats, effectively disappeared when he became prime minister in 2010 — and formally dissolved three years later. Almost a decade after he first took office, the only serious opposition to Orban is to his right.

The last time globalization transformed the world so thoroughly, in the early twentieth century, the ensuing backlash led to liberalism’s first catastrophic fail. In those years, liberals consistently failed to understand that the ground had shifted under them. In Russia, Bolsheviks took power from the weak crew of potential democratic reformers that had overthrown the tsar, inspiring a handful of movements in Europe that attempted something similar. In Germany, illiberal politicians took aim at the cosmopolitan values of the Weimar Republic. In Italy and Spain, leaders adopted virulent nationalism, challenging incipient global institutions like the League of Nations. In the wake of the Great Depression, Japanese ultra-militarists easily dispatched the weak Taisho democracy. Meanwhile, in the United States, right-wing demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin built large followings by railing on the radio against communists, Wall Street, and “the international money-changers in the temple,” though they failed to take power in the era of a charismatic liberal president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Where liberalism survived, it did so largely by absorbing some of the strategies of the illiberal communists and fascists, namely relying on the state to keep the economy afloat, as Roosevelt did with his New Deal policies. This lesson carried over into the post-World War II-era in which American liberals continued to embrace New Deal principles that would culminate in President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and European liberals embraced the compromises that would eventually produce the European Union. At the global level, nations of various ideological dispositions came together to create a set of institutions — the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund — meant to ensure some degree of permanent stability. Economic globalization resumed, but this time in a regulatory environment that, initially, seemed to spread the benefits more equally.

That all changed in the 1970s when, in one country after another, a new generation of liberals and conservatives began to dismantle those very regulations in hopes that an unfettered market would jump-start growth globally. However, only after China embraced capitalism and the Soviet Union collapsed did economic globalization take a quantum leap to true globalization. With it the world returned to Gilded Age levels of concentrated wealth and inequality. No surprise, then, that the instability and intolerance of that long-gone era has returned as well.

Leaders like Putin, Erdogan, and Trump aren’t just politically savvy, nor have they simply been lucky or unusually ruthless. Instead, they sensed the changing mood of a moment and were able to capitalize on a profound discontent with the status quo that liberals had built, a discontent that won’t disappear simply because right-wing populists are exposed as frauds, incompetents, or cheats. Worse, crafty operators with even more ambitious agendas stand ready to destroy the liberal status quo once and for all.

The Bannon Archipelago

A Nationalist International should be a contradiction in terms, but that hasn’t stopped Steve Bannon from trying to create one. The erstwhile publisher and moviemaker, darling of the alt-right, and one-time Trump whisperer is on an extended world tour aimed at building a loose network of right-wing populists that he calls the Movement. It’s centered in — of all places — Brussels, the home of the European Union.

Bannon hopes to take advantage of post-Brexit Euroskepticism to roll his Trojan horse of a movement into the very heart of the enemy’s camp. With the encouragement of various right-wing oligarchs like financier John Thornton, he’s already met with neo-fascists associated with groups like the Belgian Vlaams Belong, France’s National Rally (the rebranded National Front), and Sweden’s Democratic Party, as well as more conventional right-wing populists in Italy and Hungary. He’s out to take the EU from the social democrats and pallid conservatives, the Vatican from the too-permissive Pope Francis, and the West from the clutches of immigrants and multiculturalists.

Elections for the European Parliament at the end of May should prove a testing ground for Bannon’s Movement. Right now, if the polling is accurate and the Euroskeptic, populist, and far-right parties combine their efforts, they could, staggeringly enough, become the largest coalition in that body. True, some prominent right-wing parties, like Poland’s Law and Justice, remain unseduced by Bannon. But it’s a mistake to underestimate him, just as it was a mistake to dismiss Trump in 2016. Success can be very persuasive, as The Donald proved in his takeover of a Republican Party whose leaders initially and almost universally despised him.

But Europe is only part of Bannon’s plan. For someone who has vented so much spleen at “globalists” like financier and philanthropist George Soros, Bannon is quite the internationalist. In Latin America, he’s already appointedJair Bolsonaro’s youngest son as his regional representative to help build on the right’s electoral successes in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay. Bannon has also partnered with a Chinese billionaire to create a Rule of Law Fund that’s meant to be the point of a spear aimed at the regime in Beijing.

In search of a stable of princes, that would-be Machiavelli has also visited Japan at the invitation of the fanatical Happiness Realization Party, a political cult that embraces Japanese militarism. Israel, too, is to be part of Bannon’s alt-right archipelago because the self-professed “Christian Zionist” sees Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a key link in a future anti-Islamic front. Also figuring prominently in his thinking is Russia, a vast, mostly white country led by a critic of Western liberalism and “radical Islam,”though Bannon acknowledges that the Mueller report has temporarily set back his efforts.

Bannon didn’t create the new right-wing populist wave, but he’s been clever enough to grab a surfboard, dive into the waters, and try to guide the swell further to the right. Toward that end, he’s creating what he calls a “war room.” He says:

“It’s what we did for Trump in the U.S.: writing op-eds, booking people on media, surrogate media — all that. The last part of it is to do with grassroots social media and getting organized physically and getting out the vote.”

This isn’t, however, just a global version of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” an opportunistic attempt to solidify a political realignment. Bannon and his ilk have a much more ambitious project in mind. Having dismissed the current resident of the Vatican as far too liberal, Bannon has put himself forward as the pope of a new movement to fight the barbarians (as he defines them).

A lifelong Catholic and former military man, he harkens back to a much earlier papal tradition, that of Pope Urban II, who launched the First Crusade to retake Jerusalem at the end of the eleventh century. Bannon wants to recreate a pre-EU, whiter, more martial and nationalistic Europe. Like the popes and princes of the eleventh century, the right-wing populists in Europe have already been conjuring up external enemies to unify the like-minded. Islam remains a suitable adversary, whether in the form of ordinary immigrants or extraordinary terrorists. But there’s China, too, which poses the greatest challenge to the West since the Middle Kingdom last ruled the world of commerce, innovation, and culture so many centuries ago. Finally, there’s the enemy within: the globalists who have no patience for nationalism, the secularists who want to hold religion at arm’s length, and the multiculturalists who campaign against white privilege.

This crusade of Bannon’s and the far right is a last-ditch effort to maintain the United States and a large swath of Eurasia as bastions of white Christendom. For decades, those who held such views populated the extremes where they belonged. However, the economic failures of globalization, a huge uptick in refugee flows, and a general decline in faith in democratic institutions have proved fertile ground for such a new crusade to take shape.

Movement vs. Movement

In the United States, organizations like Indivisible, a progressive group created by former congressional staffers in the wake of the 2016 elections that now has 5,000 local chapters, are not waiting for the political pendulum to swing by itself. They’re already working hard to push politics back to the left — and their organizing produced results in the 2018 midterm elections when the Democratic Party retook the House of Representatives.

The 2020 presidential election, however, is a different matter. Trump now has the incumbent’s advantage and, for the time being, the tailwind of a strong economy. In fact, some economic forecasters predict a landslide for him as long as the economy doesn’t tank. The president’s team has also made sure that areas of the country where his base is strong are experiencing greater job growth than in Democratic Party strongholds.

In addition, Trump and his minions are hard at work eroding the foundations of a democratic society — demonizing the media, working to suppress voter turnout, chipping away at the barriers between church and state, and packing the courts with ideologues who support their agenda. The vast majority of the groups mobilizing to defeat Trump in 2020 are working with traditional tools to effect political change. Having learned from past masters of populism like Orban and Erdogan, Team Trump is instead busy changing the playing field.

That’s what makes the current political moment different. The pendulum theory of political change only applies if the major electoral actors play by the same rules. The right-wing populists have, however, been busy transforming the rules of the game so that they can stay in power as long as possible, while using the levers of the state to enrich themselves and their cronies. Putin has ruled Russia for two decades. Erdogan has held onto power for 16 years. Orban is closing in on a decade in office. Even in an undemocratic country like China, Xi Jinping has altered the collective rules of succession to ensure that he will remain leader for life.

One possible response to right-wing populism would, of course, be to ramp up left-wing populism. This was a winning strategy in 2015 for the Greek political party Syriza, which has been in charge of that country for four years now. It also worked for Evo Morales, who has captained Bolivia for more than a dozen years. And, of course, Bernie Sanders came close to being the Democratic Party’s standard bearer in the 2016 election while promoting his version of left-wing populism, which capitalizes on an essential political reality: passion often moves people more effectively than policy.

But it’s hard to see left-wing populism as a long-term answer to the New Right. It either fails electorally, as Jean-Luc Melenchon, the standard bearer for the movement France Unbowed, discovered in that country’s last presidential election; or it faces the kind of “economic realities” that forced Syriza to accommodate the austerity demands of European bureaucrats and banks; or, as Morales has demonstrated in Bolivia, it ends up presiding over the same erosion of democratic practices as its right-wing counterparts.

Yes, the nuts-and-bolts organizing of groups like Indivisible is indispensable. Yes, the passion of left-wing populists is essential. But such politicking and the mirror-image populism that sometimes goes with it are mere life preservers. They may keep us afloat, but they won’t rescue us. The New Right requires a far more original kind of response.

After all, the forces that gave rise to this tidal wave of right-wing populism remain in place: widening economic inequality, surging migrant flows, ballooning corruption scandals. Parties of the center remain discredited, and liberals have not come up with convincing alternatives to the policies and institutions of globalization they created. Trying to nudge the political pendulum out of the emergency zone is a necessary but ultimately insufficient approach. It’s the equivalent of expecting that a conventional fix like a gasoline tax will stop climate change. Environmentalists understand that unprecedented change requires an unprecedented response. To deal with the threat of political climate change, a similarly international, broad-based, and fundamentally new approach is called for.

So don’t wait for the pendulum to swing. Don’t put your faith in the guardrails. It’s not time for a manifesto or a 10-point plan. It’s time for a movement to counteract Bannon’s Movement, a global coalition that joins people and politicians in a united, international effort to respond to the true global problems — climate change, endless war, and economic inequality — that threaten to overwhelm us all. Absent such a movement, the rising tide of populism will sink all boats, life preservers and all.

This article first appeared on TomDispatch.

How Billionaires Define Socialism

Wed, 2019-05-15 15:55

Photograph Source: World Economic Forum – CC BY-SA 2.0

It wasn’t surprising to hear multi-billionaires Bill Gates, Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett, interviewed on CNBC-TV on Thursday, May 9, defending capitalism. But it was indeed surprising that Gates made a positive comment about socialism, or at least about what is defined in the United States as socialism.

Gates pointed out that the current increase in pro-socialist rhetoric in the United States does not really refer to socialism according to any conventional definition of the word. The “socialist” policies that we hear from politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Bernie Sanders are, to a greater extent, about capitalist policies with a strong social security contribution. And that is good!

“Socialism used to mean that a State controlled the means of production”, and, according to Gates, “many people here who promote socialism do not define it in that classical way.”

Gates also says that most people who favor socialism in the United States do not speak of true socialism. And they’re right!

“The majority does not argue against capitalism… only believes that there should be changes in taxes, more progressive tax rates, and the reinstatement of estate tax. What they actually want is capitalism with a better level of taxation,” says Gates.

According to him, most left-wing Americans do not advocate the ownership of the means of production to be passed on to the workers, that all industries be nationalized, and that private property be abolished, which are the real principles of socialist ideology.

The majority of left-wing people support politicians who promise capitalism with a solid social security foundation. But there is no indication that what they are proposing is truly socialism.

The federal employment guarantee of AOC, for example, would consist of a reference standard for employment that would include a minimum wage of $15 linked to inflation, full medical care, and paid leave for sickness and children.

This proposal would drastically improve the quality of employment in the United States by giving training and experience to the workers and at the same time providing much needed public services to communities in areas such as, education, health, park maintenance, childcare, and environment conservation.

But that’s not socialism in the classic sense of the word. It is capitalism with a strong social safety net. The majority of rich countries in Europe already have what AOC proposes. That doesn’t make them socialists. In any case, it makes them social democrats.

The United States does not have a Social Democratic party, thus, anything to the left of the Democratic Party is called socialism, because Americans do not have a vocabulary that would allow them to speak of these things with greater subtlety than that of a left against a binary right.

Why people like Bernie Sanders and AOC are labeled as socialists, and even sometimes they call themselves by that term?

Because Fox News spent Obama’s years calling all the Democratic Party’s policies so. As a result, there are two generations (Millennials and Generation Z) who simply use the term socialist without worrying too much about what it exactly means.

For the younger generations, socialism only means making sure that everyone can go to the doctor when they need it, or have a roof over their heads, or have money to buy food, regardless of that person’s circumstances.

And these generations believe that all of these can be achieved within the existing system, without overthrowing the ruling class and the setting of a new political system led by the working class.

As Gates points out, there are some real socialists in the world. And there are even real socialists in governments all over the world. But most American socialists are simply leftists who disregard party labels and talk about policies. Bill Gates knows this and Donald Trump knows it too.

It’s not that Bill Gates is progressive. Guys like Gates know clearly that the guillotines are coming, and if the United States continues along the path of austerity and tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, anything can happen.

According to available information, Gates is worth more than $101 billion dollars, which should literally be considered a crime in a civilized society in which 13 million children do not have enough to eat. But, for now, we will have to accept that at least there are some multi-billionaires who recognize the need for real changes in global society.

Israel’s Common Denominator: Why Israel Will Continue to Bomb Gaza

Wed, 2019-05-15 15:55

Photograph Source: International Solidarity Movement – CC BY-SA 2.0

On May 4, Israel launched a series of deadly airstrikes on the besieged Gaza Strip, prompting a response from various resistance groups. At least 25 Palestinians were killed and nearly 200 people wounded in the Israeli attacks. Four Israelis were also killed by Palestinian rockets.

The clashes were instigated by Israel, when the Israeli military killed four Palestinians in Gaza on May 3. Two were killed while protesting along the fence separating Gaza from Israel. They were participating in the Great March of Return, a protracted Palestinian non-violent protest demanding an end to the Israeli siege. The other two were killed in an Israeli airstrike that targeted a Hamas post in the central Gaza Strip.

Why did Netanyahu choose such timing to bomb Gaza? It would have made more sense to attack Gaza in the run-up to the general elections. For months prior to the April 9 elections, Netanyahu was repeatedly accused of being soft on Hamas.

Although desperate for votes, Netanyahu refrained from a major operation against Gaza, because of the inherent risk in such attacks, as seen in the botched Israeli incursion into Khan Younis on November 11. Netanyahu could have lost a highly contested election, had he failed.

Following a victory, the soon-to-be longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister has the necessary political capital to launch wars at whim.

Israeli politics featured heavily in the latest Gaza onslaught.

Netanyahu is in the final stages of forming a new coalition, yet another government of like-minded far right, religious zealots and ultra-nationalist politicians which, he admits, is not easy.

“It’s not a simple job and there are different aspects – giving out portfolios, control over the state budget and many other challenges,” Netanyahu said at a Likud party meeting on April 30.

If Netanyahu succeeds, he will form his fifth government – 4 of them consecutively. However, his main challenge is to reconcile among the various potential coalition partners.

Netanyahu wishes to include six parties in his new government: his own, the Likud, with 35 seats in the Israeli Knesset (parliament); religious extremist parties: Shas (8 seats), United Torah Judaism (8), Yisrael Beiteinu of ultra-nationalist, Avigdor Lieberman (5), the newly-formed Union of Right-wing Parties (5) and the centrist Kulanu with 4 seats.

“Netanyahu is keen to include all six parties in his government to provide a semblance of stability and prevent a narrow majority that will be at the mercy of a single disgruntled party threatening to quit,” reported the Israeli daily ‘Jerusalem Post’ newspaper.

But how is Netanyahu to maintain peace among vastly different allies and how is that relevant to the bombing of Gaza?

Netanyahu bombed Gaza because it is the only unifying demand among all of his allies. He needed to assure them of his commitment to keep pressure on Palestinian Resistance, of maintaining the siege on Gaza and ensuring the safety of Israel’s southern towns and settlements.

Barring that, there is little that these groups have in common. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox parties barely agree on some fundamental issues. For example, Lieberman has been pushing for a draft law requiring ultra-Orthodox conscription in the Israeli army, vehemently rejected by Netanyahu’s religious allies.

Although the election performance of Lieberman’s party was hardly impressive, his influence goes beyond numbers. Lieberman had resigned his post as a Defense Minister last November in protest of Netanyahu’s supposed “capitulation to terror”, but he has formed a strong alliance with Israel’s southern towns bordering the besieged Gaza Strip.

For years, Lieberman has expressed solidarity with them and, in return, has manipulated this whenever he wishes to pressure or challenge the Prime Minister.

Lieberman has exploited the notion among residents and settlers in southern Israel and the Occupied West Bank that they are being treated unfairly compared to their compatriots elsewhere.

Following a truce between Israel and Gaza factions last November, for example, hundreds of settlers protested their “second class status”, demanding greater government support to protect their “security” against Gaza. Interestingly, these border towns have been at the center of a significant economic and demographic growth over the last few years, which has been stimulated by the Israeli government’s investments in the area.

Seeing themselves as the heirs to the Zionist founders of Israel, residents of these towns believe that they are the defenders of the Zionist vision.

Despite their incessant complaints, southern Israeli communities have seen constant growth in economic opportunity, thus population. This fact has placed these areas at the center of Israeli politicians’ radar, all trying to win favor with their leaders and obtain the support of their vastly expanding economic sectors.

This recent electoral strength has made the demands and expectations of Israeli southern community leaders a focal point in mainstream Israeli politics.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that one of the conditions placed by Lieberman to join Netanyahu’s coalition is the intensification of the Israeli siege on Gaza and the liquidation of the Gaza resistance.

Although Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White Party, has lost the elections, he wishes to stay relevant in mainstream politics by appeasing to Jewish settlers and residents of southern Israel. During the Israeli army’s attack on Gaza on May 4, Gantz joined the chorus calling for more Palestinian blood.

“We must strike hard, in an uncompromising manner, in any way the army will recommend, with military and intelligence considerations,” he told Israeli Channel 13. “We must restore the deterrence that has been eroded catastrophically for more than a year.”

Following the death of 4 Israelis as a result of Gaza rockets, Israeli politicians jockeyed to show support for southern residents, demanding yet more violence. The euphoria of support inspired the mayor of Sderot, Alon Davidi, to call for the invasion of Gaza.

The latest attack on Gaza was meant to serve the interests of all of Netanyahu’s possible coalition partners. Alas, although a truce has been declared, more Israeli violence should be expected once the coalition is formed because, in order for Netanyahu to keep his partners happy, he would need to persistently keep pounding Gaza.

Too Many People, or Too Much Greed?

Wed, 2019-05-15 15:54

During the dark early morning hours of a September 27 a few years after the Second World War, a passenger ship cruising calm South Atlantic waters struck a drifting forgotten mine, was violently breached, and quickly sank before any distress signal could be broadcast. Daylight found 26 survivors massed in, or floating in the sea around, a small lifeboat built for 12. This is the opening scenario to the 1957 British film Abandon Ship! (also called Seven Waves Away, or Seven Days From Now); and is succinctly presented in this brief clip. 

The weight of those on board along with the weight of the survivors in the water clinging to the sides lowered the boat in the water and put it in grave danger of swamping and capsizing with any wave action, and certainly in the event of a storm. There were only small stores of food and fresh water in the boat, scant medical supplies, no communications gear, no sailing tackle, and only oars. Many of the survivors were injured, weak, frail and old. What were they to do?

They could sit tight and drift to conserve their strength and minimize food consumption, and hope for a chance meeting with a rescue ship before succumbing to their wounds and infections, exposure, thirst and starvation. However, with the first increase of wind and wave action, and any turn in the weather, they would surely all be dumped into the sea and soon drowned.

They could try rowing to the nearest shore, Africa 1,500 miles away, but the bodily energy reserves of the hardy people who would have to provide the propulsion by rowing would be drained away long before reaching land, because of the drag of the total weight of humanity massed about the boat. Also, the boat would still be at risk of swamping should the weather turn for the worse.

The only remaining alternative was to abandon those people least able to contribute to propulsion, so a smaller number of the fittest people would have the water and food stores to themselves, and amount to a lower weight to be transported with a boat that was higher in the water and much more stably seaworthy. But, how many and who would be cast adrift, and who would make those choices?

The officer in charge, Alec Holmes, reluctantly comes to accept the logic of the third alternative. He ensures that he and the seamen under his command are in possession of the sole firearm on board, and sequentially set the weakest among them adrift as their voyage proceeds, as the sick and injured worsen, and as their supplies dwindle. One woman reflects on the cruelty of the powerful in their sacrificing of the weak by saying: “Why are the wicked always so strong?,” and that “an atomic scientist, a brilliant playwright, and a famous former opera singer have been sacrificed to save two ‘apemen’, a racketeer, and a devout coward.”

We could think of this lifeboat as a microcosm of our Planet Earth, and its overcrowding with desperate survivors as representative of a world population explosion facing the combined biological and geophysical catastrophe of collapsing habitability brought on by the global warming climate emergency, and a rapidly shriveling biodiversity.

It took over 200,000 years of human history for the world’s population to reach 1 billion, and only 200 years more to reach 7 billion; world population was estimated to be at 7.7 billion by April 2019.

[ Figure: World population estimates from 1800 to 2100, based on “high”, “medium” and “low” United Nations projections in 2015 and UN historical estimates for pre-1950 data.]

World population is estimated to have reached one billion for the first time in 1804. It was another 123 years before it reached two billion in 1927, but it took only 33 years to reach three billion in 1960. The global population reached four billion in 1974 (14 years later), five billion in 1987 (13 years later), six billion in 1999 (12 years later), and seven billion in October 2011 (12 years later), according to the United Nations, or in March 2012 (13 years later), according to the United States Census Bureau.

I have heard from several of my critics that Earth “needs to” be quickly depopulated down to, say, its 1974 population size of 4 billion, in order to preserve its “carrying capacity” by leaving half of Earth’s area “wild” to both solve our global warming and biodiversity depletion problems, and thus maintain our prosperous nations’ current styles of inequitable capitalist societies within the larger context of a continuing human civilization. Just how this depopulation is to be carried out, and by who, is not mentioned by these critics, hence this essay. 

Many factors affect population growth and the magnitude of the Earth’s carrying capacity over time, among them is a positive feedback loop between demographic growth and technological development. Human knowledge (e.g., science) and technological development (e.g., machines, drugs) improve over time and boost human survival, which helps accelerate population growth. Talented individuals, who can devise intellectual and technological improvements, are statistically more likely to arise from and survive to maturity in larger populations living at more advanced levels of development. The intellectual and technological innovations of inventive individuals make it possible to amplify the Earth’s carrying capacity as the population grows, for example by tamping down the incidence and virulence of diseases, and by increasing agricultural yields. However, there is no guarantee that such a positive feedback can cycle forever, and current trends would seem to indicate that this feedback loop is losing its momentum.

What are humanity’s options for forestalling its own extinction at least into the next century? Given human nature, and our many many tribal rivalries, ideologies, fears, superstitions, bigotries, and diversities of moral courage and of moral weakness, what are likely to be the dominant choices for collective actions for societal survival?

We homo sapiens could as a species choose to cooperate globally to simultaneously raise the living standards of the most impoverished — and majority — of Earth’s people, and reformulate our civilization’s manner of energy generation and economic operation, from its highly inequitable feudal capitalism to a highly equalized world eco-socialism: to halt the poisoning of our global environment with waste heat and carbon dioxide from combustion; waste methane from industrialized meat consumption and a melting degradation of the biosphere; and waste chemicals and plastics from industrialized farming and the detritus of industrialized consumerism. In other words, we could unite to share out the Earth equitably while also maximizing the efficiency of the global use of natural resources by quickly reforming our civilization — our methods of finding, extracting and using energy, and the forms and purposes of our economics — so as to be in sustainable balance with natural processes and cycles, all for the purpose of allowing Lifeboat Earth to row or drift for as long as possible with a minimal sacrifice of human decency and human life.

Such a course would obviously include fully subsidized healthcare for everybody, with every form of contraception including abortion on demand, and with all forms of maternity care; also subsidized and universal quality education from preschool through trade schools and university, guaranteed minimum livable income, and fully subsidized elder care and for end-of-life choices. It would be a crime to be a billionaire in such a society, and the capitalism of today — the factional and privatized exploitation of the public — would be extinct since the essence of this society would be the overlapping of relationships of mutual help and consideration on many scales. Capitalism is the ideology of parasites. The people of such an idealized world eco-socialist society would be morally committed individuals who would take it as a given that if human extinction were imminent and unavoidable, they would all share the same fate in solidarity: honor till the end, whenever that would be whether sooner or later.

Human history up to the present suggests that this “all in till the end” type of world socialism is a very unlikely future for us globally, though small isolated pockets of it might develop within the much larger drama of human civilization. While there is always a real chance that a ship at sea would happen upon a lifeboat and rescue its shipwrecked survivors, there is no chance for a rescue of humanity drifting toward extinction aboard Lifeboat Earth, through a massive intervention by fantastically powerful Space Aliens. Our salvation like our damnation is up to us and only us.

So, we can reasonably suppose that the management of Lifeboat Earth will proceed as the wickedness of the powerful in sacrificing the weak to lonesome and fatal abandonment so that the capitalistically fittest can maximize their span of prosperous and even luxuriant survival. Such management of Lifeboat Earth would be (and is) very fractious because greed as a fundamental motivation intrinsically creates dissension, disunity and conflict. Many scales of exclusion would be evident: the impoverishment of a national public and its exclusion from political decision-making by a wealthy and narrowing oligarchy; the oppression by a dominant racial or ethnic population of the weaker ethnic populations and minority-type people it has dominion over; and the exploitation of weaker countries and less-developed economies by strong, advanced and domineering nations. We need only mention the white supremacy domestic policy, and militaristic economic and foreign policy of the United States, the Han supremacy policy being applied by the ruling Chinese on the Uyghurs and in Tibet, the pitiless grinding down of the Palestinians by Zionist Israel, and the migrant streams erupting out of Central America and Africa to escape from starvation and death squads, to stimulate the recollection of numerous other examples of the wickedness of the strong in the management of other regional compartments of Lifeboat Earth. We might even live to see American and European navies shelling refugee ships at sea, and troops of their militarized police summarily executing undocumented aliens breaching their borders, to thwart the arrival of waves of destitute and desperate migrants. Such atrocities would be manifestations of extreme “them or us” end-times panic by the power-clinging wicked.

What can the concerned, morally oriented, largely disorganized and politically marginalized citizens of the world do to help Lifeboat Earth complete its journey — however long or short that may be — in a more human manner than is occurring today, and certainly than might be its most horrible dénouement? My best and least presumptuous answer is: care enough about the situation to become aware of it, and then do whatever you are willing to do, and have the opportunity to do, to inject greater degrees of awareness, decency and compassion into the small cells of world society that sense your presence. The details of this — whether political, economic, social, intellectual, action-oriented or artistic — depend on the individual, it’s not for me to prescribe.

It is entirely possible that the all-inclusive utopian world of eco-socialist solidarity would have a shorter lifespan than a wicked world for just a few wealthy minorities who pitilessly exclude large segments of humanity, which they disfavor with racial, ethnic and materialistic (anti-poverty) bigotries. If the geophysical gear-train of climate alteration has now been irrevocably set to destroy habitability for humans (and who really knows?), then the eco-socialist world will ultimately fail despite its best efforts. But, it would have been the most enlightened and honorable of possible human civilizations during its lifetime. The wicked world of exclusionary wealthy minorities could extend its lifetime under the same geophysical conditions by culling the human population through combinations of cruel neglect and malicious assault — with no human solidarity and no honor. The partisans for the wicked world of exclusionary wealth justify themselves by claiming “there are too many people,” while the partisans for eco-socialist world solidarity justify themselves by declaring “there is too much greed.” I recognize that the population explosion is a fundamental driver of our combined climate, biodiversity and carrying capacity emergency, and I also agree with the eco-socialists: Earth has too many greedy people.

Today, our Lifeboat Earth is drifting toward becoming a more wicked world of exclusionary survival for exclusionary wealth, but this drift is being resisted by many forms of spirited, morally-based and eco-socially oriented activism. That activism is where the soul and the honor of humanity are to be found.  

Unionists Defrock Ulster

Wed, 2019-05-15 15:53

The recent gunning down of 29 year old Lyra McKee in the northern Irish city of Derry once again focused widespread attention on that province of the British state. Few would be impressed by her killers’ claim; sorry, we really wanted to shoot a police officer and not her. Lyra was a journalist, writer and LGBT activist.

Northern Ireland was already in the news over issues emanating from the British state’s protracted maneuverings to leave the European Union (EU). When Britain leaves the EU, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Britain will be its only land frontier with the EU.

So far the collective heads gathered together in the British parliament haven’t been able get around the idea of how to do that. Fears of a return to the 30 years of bloody conflict that plagued the British part of Ireland, also known as Ulster, jockey for position with fear of Ulster’s loss of sovereignty as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Beware the dreaded word, Republic!

There’s a lot of fear about and it’s not only in Ulster. There is considerable intestinal twitching within the ranks of Britain’s governing – even if only just –Conservative and Unionist Party. Without a clear majority it relies on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to stay in office.

The DUP holds 10 seats in the British parliament. Its support for the shaky Conservatives comes at a price of around 1bn pounds sterling (1.3bn US$) paid into the coffers of the Northern Ireland Executive. According to an article in The Independent (23 January 2016) using data from the UK’s Office of National Statistics, workers in Ulster are the lowest paid in all the UK.

Unionism has been a force in Ireland, particularly the north eastern counties for some time, since before the partitioning of Ireland in 1921, leading to today’s politically independent republic and British enclave of Ulster. Once there was only one party calling itself unionist. Now there are many but the DUP, just now, is the best organised.

In a country where religion strongly colours political attitudes and affiliations the 2011 consensus showed 45% of the population identified as Catholic and 48% as Protestant. The DUP, in a book published this year, is said to have only 0.6% of its members Catholic.

It has a strong base among what remains of the traditional, industrial classes, city dwellers and evangelical communities in and beyond the major towns. It is conservative and noted for exercising opposition to same sex marriage and abortion rights, which exist in the rest of Britain but not in Northern Ireland.

One of its major, probably its major achievement, over the decades has been to maintain a high degree of hegemony over the various class divisions of Ulster’s Protestants. Nowhere is this more revealed in the claim that seventeen USA presidents carry Ulster ancestry.

And of course any flag waving of Ulster unionism wouldn’t be complete without mention of British World War Two generals with Ulster connections. Top of the list are generals Alan Brooke, Bernard Montgomery and John Dill.

Ulster has absorbed influences that have not impacted on much of the rest of Ireland. That’s hardly surprising since the shortest distance between Scotland and the north of Ireland is only 12 miles (19.3 Km.)

But the real thrust started in the early 17th century and gathered momentum with what has come to be known as the Plantation of Ulster a few years later. When Scottish King James relocated to London to assume the English crown he decided to clear the English /Scottish border region of its Border Revers, who for centuries had been a thorn in the side of both Scottish and English monarchs.

These cattle thieves, kidnappers and general purpose marauders, including my ancestors, were forcibly shipped off to the nearest piece of land that was not their home. Their enforced destinations were the Irish counties of Antrim and Down.

More transfers were to follow, taking over land vacated by Irish aristocrats, during the Fright of the Earls (1607), mostly to Spain. What accompanied these migrations was an influx of rebellious, religiously non-conformist Scots and some English. On the face of it that looks like seed corn material for a people with a critical attitude to the world they landed in. Indeed many kept on the move, eventually going on to the south east of British North America.

What went wrong? Did anything really go wrong? Or is it more a case of there being some things we don’t talk about in polite Unionist company?

Even before the words unionist and republican entered the political language of Ireland there existed challenges to the emerging status quo. In 1694, the same year as the Bank of England was formed to bolster up England’s national credit worthiness and five years after the unionist icon, the Dutch protestant Prince William and his English wife Mary jointly assumed the English throne, Francis Hutchison was born.

That was near Saintfield, county Down, in the northeast of Ireland. He was part of a Scots Irish/ Ulster Scots tradition, strongly rooted then as today in the Presbyterian tradition. This was at a time when mercantile capitalism had the wind in its sails and Britain was acquiring overseas territories, most notably in the Americas. In turn this wind was driven by the Atlantic slave trade which plundered Africa of its people.

This did not rest easily with Hutchison. He was to write, “To extend civil power over distant nations, and form grand unwieldy empires, without regard to the obvious maxims of humanity, has been one great source of human misery.”

Hutchison moved to Scotland, lecturing at Glasgow University, influencing the philosophers Adam Smith and David Hume among others. It was there that he became an influential figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. Some would say European Enlightenment and others the even move inclusively, simply, the Enlightenment.

Two women who Unionists would rather we didn’t mention are Betsy Grey a county Down Presbyterian peasant woman, immortalized in W G Lyttle’s book, Betsy Grey or Hearts of Down: A Tale of Ninety Eight. She was killed following the failed 1798 uprising, inspired in part by the American and French Revolutions.

Protestant Mary Ann McCracken (1770–1866) was the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, an executed leader of the same uprising. She went on to become a noted social reformer, champion of the poor and girls education, as well as an anti-slavery campaigner. Mary Ann was both of her time and ahead of her time. She was known to visit Belfast docks, leafleting those immigrating to the USA, extoling them not to become involved in slavery on reaching America.

By the end of the 19th century mercantile capitalism had had its day. The republicanism that emerged at the end of the 18th century and took root in North and South America did not affectively challenge the dynamic of capitalism. It embraced industrialization though the factory system of producing goods. Upstream these factories of Europe demanded raw materials; essential metals and chemicals as well as cotton, timber and rubber. Colonialism served this purpose.

Roger Casement was born into a middle class Protestant family near Dublin but was brought up in northern county of Antrim. During a career in the British diplomatic service he gained notoriety, and a knighthood, speaking out against the treatment and living conditions of indigenous people in the Belgium Congo (now Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo) and the South American Putumayo region in today’s Colombo.

Later, in 1916 during World War 1 Sir Roger Casement had been in Germany, seeking but not gaining, support for the Easter Week rising against British rule in Ireland. On his return to Ireland, ironically, to advise Irish republicans against the rising which he calculated was doomed without German support.

Captured and taken to England, he was tried and hanged there. Well known personalities from the English literary world campaigned for his life to be spared. But so called Black Dairies were released into the public domain. These, it was alleged, showed Casement as a homosexual in sexual relationships while on his travels in Africa. In 1916 that helped seal his fate.

His dying wish was that he be buried at Murlough Bay, in county Antrim, close to where he spent his childhood. So far that has not been realized. Although today some herald him as the founder of modern human rights.

Another unlikely, and as far as Ulster Unionists are concerned, unliked Ulster man was Jack White. He too was born in county Antrim, into an Anglo Irish family. Initially he followed his father Field Marshal Sir George White and joined the British army and saw service during the Boer war in South Africa.

During that war he developed a dislike for the British Establishment and later embarked on a personal and political journey that increasingly led him in a leftward direction. He supported the Home Rule movement for Irish independence. He helped train the Irish Citizen’s army of trade unionists which took part in the Easter Rising of 1916.

Later, during the period of the Spanish war against Franco’s fascism he embraced anarchism. But perhaps his most telling comment was given at a Home Rule meeting when he identified, conservative, protestant Ulster unionism with “bigotry and stagnation.” That day he shared a platform with Roger Casement.

Also on that platform was the Reverend James Armour, a local Presbyterian minister and champion of local tenant farmer’s rights and an Irish Home Rule supporter. He flavored the teaching of the Irish language in schools and advocated advances in catholic university education.

Louis MacNeice was born in Belfast, the son of a Church of Ireland minister. He was sent to the elite English public school, Marlborough College and later Merton College Oxford. There he associated with the 1930s poets, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, and C. Day Lewis.

Always something of an outsider, it would have been easy for him to allow himself to be identified as English. After all he did write that, “I have always had what may well be a proper dislike and disapproval of the North of Ireland.” For personal reasons as much as anything he said, “The north was tyranny.”

But he retained his Irish identity, albeit with irony more than passion. That might go some way to explain his popularity and esteem with today’s generation of young Ulster poets.

Silence, denial and avoidance are all part of the sword and shield, the word and deed, of Ulster unionism. Their daily bread is to feed their British nationalism from the republican plate of Sinn Fein, the main nationalist party in Ireland. Without that their leadership it has little to offer the people of the north.

Like a defrocked priest, a religious mediator stripped of authority to go between mere humans and god, Ulster unionist leadership becomes naked before the eyes of an Ulster denied enlightenment. The men and women mentioned above enjoy a celebrity kind of status in some quarters. But ordinary, less well known were their numerous supporters.

Therein lies the challenge for today’s Left. How to break through the obscurity of ages with an open mindedness to today’s challenges, both historic and contemporary. A shared, new look at class self-interest would do for starters.

The Resilient Forests Act: a Trojan Horse to Accelerate Logging on Public Lands

Wed, 2019-05-15 15:50

We live in an age of Orwellian Doublespeak. Such doublespeak is exemplified by the euphemistically named “Resilient Federal Forests Act” (RFFA) sponsored by Rep. Westerman. Like previous versions, Westerman asserts RFFA will reduce massive wildfires and smoke, and promote more “resilient” forests.

In the name of fire reduction, RFFA is a Trojan Horse designed to expedite logging under the pretext of “reducing wildfires.” The flawed assumption behind this legislation is that fuels are driving large wildfires.  However, numerous studies have found that extreme fire weather, not fuels, is mainly responsible for large blazes. The topography is also a factor: fires burn faster upslope.

As the Bush era Clear Sky Act which was promoted as a way to “streamline” environmental laws to provide regulatory relief to the industries while allowing more air pollution, the “Resilient Federal Forest Act is a timber industry supported bill that eliminates nearly all environmental protections for our public forests.

Among other components, the RFFA would allow the Forest Service to log up to 30,000 acres using categorical exclusion rules that override the normal environmental review process. Keep in mind a football field is about an acre. Thus, Westerman’s bill would allow logging an area the size of 30,000 football fields without any environmental assessment.

Worse for our forests, there is no limit on how many times this categorical exclusion can be used. Therefore, you could have one 30,000-acre logging project immediately adjacent to another, greatly enhancing the environmental destruction.

Westerman’s legislation specifically demands logging a minimum of 500 million board feet of timber annually from the Oregon and California (O and C) lands in southern Oregon. One logging truck holds between 12,000 and 20,000 board feet of timber—you do the math.

The bill would remove the prohibition on logging eastside Cascade trees 21 inches or greater. Most ecologists will acknowledge that the preservation of large trees is key to maintaining forest resilience.

The legislation would promote so-called “salvage” logging after a blaze which eliminates the snag forests which possess the second highest biodiversity after old growth forests.

Westerman relies on logging advocates like The Nature Conservancy to justify the “science” behind his legislation, yet many fire ecologists have concluded that logging is ineffective and inefficient at reducing large blazes.

A review paper by scientists at the Forest Service Missoula Fire Lab summarized that: “Extreme environmental conditions. . . overwhelmed most fuel treatment effects. . . This included almost all treatment methods including prescribed burning and thinning. . .. Suppression efforts had little benefit from fuel modifications.”

Last fall more than 200 preeminent scientists signed a letter to Congress finding that proposed solutions to wildfire like thinning forests are ineffective and short-lived.

To quote from the scientists’ letter: “Thinning is most often proposed to reduce fire risk and lower fire intensity…However, as the climate changes, most of our fires will occur during extreme fire-weather (high winds and temperatures, low humidity, low vegetation moisture). These fires, like the ones burning in the West this summer, will affect large landscapes, regardless of thinning, and, in some cases, burn hundreds or thousands of acres in just a few days.”

The non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported: “From a quantitative perspective, the CRS study indicates a very weak relationship between acres logged and the extent and severity of forest fires. … the data indicate that fewer acres burned in areas where logging activity was limited.”

Another recent 2016 study looked at 1500 wildfires across the West and found the highest severity burns were in forests under “active management” while protected areas like parks and wilderness where logging is prohibited had the least acres of high severity burns.

Worse for those wanting to reduce large wildfires, logging/thinning increases CO2 emissions, one of the significant factors contributing to global warming. Logging is the biggest contributor to Oregon’s CO2 emissions.

The results of a study of thinning vs. wildfire found: “Thinning forests to reduce potential carbon losses due to wildfire is in direct conflict with carbon sequestration goals.”

Carbon released from logging is far higher than emissions released through natural fire. The idea that converting forests into wood products stores carbon is misleading. Only 15% of the carbon stored in a live tree is stored in the final wood product. By contrast, after a forest fire, most carbon remains on site as snags and down wood which store it for decades.

Another study concluded: “Our review reveals high C losses associated with fuel treatment, only modest differences in the combustive losses associated with high-severity fire … and a low likelihood that treated forests will be exposed to fire.”

Similar conclusions were voiced by researchers who wrote: “we find that thinning existing forests to reduce crown-fire risk increases net carbon emissions to the atmosphere for many decades… “

The bill bans reimbursement of attorney fees. This is effectively a reversal of the legal tradition of awarding reasonable attorney fees to anyone who wins a court case. This statutory change favors large corporations with deep pockets who can afford to bring lawsuits without compensation but penalizes individuals and small environmental groups with limited funds.

There are two things that Congress could do if he genuinely wanted to reduce the impacts of large wildfires. First, support legislation to reduce climate warming. Climate change is driving large fires, and without serious measures to reduce CO2 emissions from all human sources, including logging, we will continue to see large blazes.

The second thing that Congress could do is focus on reducing the flammability of homes. Wildfires are inevitable, but home losses are not. The emphasis should be on reducing the flammability of homes and communities, not logging the forest.

The Third Battle for Lake Erie

Wed, 2019-05-15 15:50

A rare, hybrid environmental campaign is underway to save a great lake – in fact, a Great Lake – Erie.

That grand body of water, declared dead in the late 1960s experienced a textbook turnaround by the mid-80s, but is once again in critical condition every summer.

Just as citizens of a previous generation finally held polluters accountable, they’re beginning to mobilize once again.  That “Second Battle for Lake Erie” in the late ‘60s and early 70s was necessitated by massive pollution from sewage treatment plants, industrial offal and phosphates in detergents.  The current “Third Battle for Lake Erie” is also about eutrophication (premature aging) from excess nutrients, but this time coming nearly 90% from agriculture, particularly hog, poultry and dairy factories.

Using traditional street protests, picketing and public education, people are starting to demand elected officials and the EPA, created in large part because of the last Lake Erie crisis, do their jobs.  But it doesn’t stop there – hence the hybrid nature of the campaign.

Not trusting that a stripped-down, rotting-from-the-top EPA can or will do the job this time, Toledoans are also showing what the modern democracy movement can do.  Envisioned by the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD) through the 1990’s; turned into a grassroots organizing tool by Move to Amend (MTA); and imbued with the goal to protect the rights of nature by the Community Environmental and Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), that movement, judging by press accounts, has recently literally put the world on notice.

Two separate, but allied citizen groups coordinate the work in Toledo.

Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie (ACLE) takes a more traditional approach, from street protests and picket lines to suing the U.S. EPA for not doing its job.  It has showed its “Third Battle for Lake Erie” presentation to over 40 groups and generated many hundreds of calls and letters to public officials.  In its three years of spunky organizing, the group has successfully raised the profile of Lake Erie’s ills as well as the corruption of regulatory agencies.

For example, one action saw ACLE members dump water choked with toxic algae and dead fish into the fountain at Toledo’s Government Center.  And the group wasn’t shy about calling out the Ohio EPA’s deputy director for having worked as a lobbyist for the Ohio Farm Bureau for 19 years.

Toledoans for Safe Water, (TSW) composed mostly of younger activists, worked with CELDF to go beyond that approach. Ignoring sunburn and frostbite, they collected 10,000 signatures to place a city charter amendment on Toledo’s ballot establishing that Lake Erie has the legal rights of people and placing Toledo at the forefront of an international movement for the rights of nature.

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) passed on February 26, but not until after surmounting multiple challenges by the county board of elections and a cabal of corporate lobbying groups to keep it off the ballot and then funding an unsuccessful $320,000 effort to defeat it.

Lobby groups included the Affiliated Construction Trades unions, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute, Ohio Oil and Gas Assoc., the Farm Bureau as well as hog, poultry and dairy factory lobbyists. British Petroleum, N.A. Inc., contributed the lion’s share of the “Vote No” campaign.

Two heartening developments in that campaign are worth noting.

The corporate forces created two dummy groups to promote a truly absurd, over-the-top message that if passed, LEBOR would “raise the cost of food and nearly everything” beyond the reach of consumers; negatively affect “even churches,” and used a graphic widely associated with anti-domestic violence programs to indicate how it would frighten children.  But a quick look at their dummy facebook page revealed that every single comment was accusing the sponsors of lying and trying to deceive voters.

The other encouraging point was to hear many people, not just core activists, readily state that “if corporations have the rights of people, why shouldn’t Lake Erie?”  That observation, won through decades of hard work by the democracy movement, quickly put the lie to any claims that LEBOR was foolishly unconstitutional.

That, of course, is what the corporados immediately tried to prove the very day after the election, by enlisting a farmer to be plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging LEBOR.  The court put a stay on implementing the measure until the suit is settled.

TSW filed a motion to be allowed to intervene in that case and considering they were the ones who wrote the initiative and collected the signatures, it seemed like a reasonable request.

But showing exactly how the system maintains itself, U.S. District Judge, Jack Zouhary, issued his decision on May 7, saying that the rights of nature are not recognized by federal courts and allowing TSW to intervene would “unduly delay this lawsuit.”  He did, however, allow the State of Ohio to intervene against LEBOR.

That leaves a host of corporate lobby firms and the Ohio Attorney General to oppose the measure and only the City of Toledo to defend it.  Toledo’s mayor has made some supportive statements but an outside law firm with no particular expertise in rights of nature was hired to take the case for the City and given all the issues confronting Toledo, proponents aren’t confident their case will get the attention it needs.

The day after Zouhary’s ruling, the Ohio House Finance Committee included a last-minute provision in the state’s $69 billion budget bill, stating no one can file a lawsuit in state court on behalf of “nature or any ecosystem,” effectively nullifying the Lake Erie Bill of Rights.

In stark contrast to the opposition shown by judges and legislators in Ohio, the United Nations invited the lead organizer for TSW, Markie Miller, to speak on Earth Day to the General Assembly about Toledo’s success and reporters from around the globe have called to find out more about the rights of nature.

Also in April, ACLE promoted a new report issued by the Environmental Working Group and the Environmental Law and Policy Center, that showed the number of hog, poultry and dairy factories in the Maumee River Watershed, all upstream from Toledo’s location on Lake Erie, has exploded in the last decade, far outnumbering anything state officials have claimed.

The study estimates some 775 of these animal concentration camps now blot the watershed, producing more than twice the amount of sewage generated by Los Angeles and Chicago combined.  That waste, containing antibiotic-resistant bacteria, hormones, viruses and massive amounts of E. coli, is dumped, untreated and often to excess, on fields that drain into the Maumee.

Providing the proverbial final straw, that report motivated ACLE members to endorse a national campaign to ban factory “farms” organized by Food and Water Watch.  Previously, the group concentrated strictly on how these facilities affect Lake Erie water quality.  Supporting a ban has broadened the group’s concerns to include inhumane conditionsoveruse of antibiotics and the significant reduction in number of traditional family farms that used to include sustainable livestock operations.

Coincidentally, an article in the UK Guardian postulates that a successful strategy for Democratic presidential candidates to win rural votes would be to support a moratorium on any more of these massive operations, given their impact on air and water quality in the immediate areas where they’re sited.

Of course, waiting for significant change to come from the top has been disproven time and again, so both TSW and ACLE say Lake Erie’s fate will be determined by whether people become angry enough to wield the power of democracy to defend nature.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan: The City with 2200+ Years of Written History

Wed, 2019-05-15 15:46

Visiting Central Asia had been on my bucket list for quite a while. So when I finally got the chance to head to Kazakhstan, I decided to take a pit-stop on my way there. This is how I got to Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan, and also the most populous city in former-Soviet Central Asia.

So what was Tashkent like? Considering the fact that it is a popular tourist destination, both from scenic and historical points of view, a lot has already been written about its various monuments and attractions. As such, I’d rather stick to my own observations about the city in this travelogue.

Uzbeks, in general, are very helpful people. They’d go out of the way to help you with directions, advice and anything else that you might ask for. Ask any passerby for a direction, chances are high they won’t understand your language. But, they’d be quick to open up the translate app in their phone, and ask you to speak to its voice input.

Compare this with the shrug and “I don’t know” behavior that’s the norm in many parts of the world.

Getting Mauled by a Monopoly Utility

Wed, 2019-05-15 15:39

Nearly a half-century ago, the Montana Power Company was determined to turn our state into “the boiler room for the nation” with vast plans for Colstrip’s coal-fired power plants and the massive strip mines to feed them. Local ranchers, farmers, landowners and environmentalists teamed up to oppose the mega-mines and pollution-belching plants and the newly formed Northern Plains Resource Council put out a bumper sticker that asked: “Has Montana Power got you by the bulbs?” Now NorthWestern Energy, Montana Power’s successor in interest as a monopoly utility, is putting the squeeze on Montanans once again.

The sad story of how Montana Power committed corporate suicide is well known. After building a vertically integrated utility empire entirely paid for by consumers, the utility’s less-than-brilliant leaders decided to sell off its hydroelectric dams and transmission lines and use the proceeds to become a telecom. In the process, both the utility and the telecom businesses wound up on the rocks and Montanans wound up with NorthWestern Energy, an out-of-state corporation, owning the energy sources and transmission lines that 370,000 Montanans rely on to power their homes and businesses. In the meantime, our power costs went from the cheapest in the region to some of the most expensive. What a deal!

But apparently that wasn’t good enough for NorthWestern Energy and after its failed legislative attempt to stick Montanans with the hundreds of millions in costs to buy, run and close Colstrip’s Unit 4, the corporation has decided to target Montanans who invest in rooftop solar in an attempt to make it uneconomical while heaping vast overcharges on those customers for the exact same energy they deliver to non-solar homes and businesses.

Montana has a Public Service Commission that is supposed to ensure that Montana’s citizens do not get ripped off by utility corporations, but the commission has not just been moribund in that regard and has actually undertaken efforts to do the opposite by passing regulatory policies aimed at crippling the state’s solar industry.

In a stunning example of both incompetence and illegality, the all-Republican commission held a “listening session” in Billings last week to hear what solar panel owners had to say about the proposed predatory rate NorthWestern wants to levy on solar panel owners for what they call “demand charges.” But in clear violation of state public meeting laws, they held it in a locked building and the public could only get in by phoning a number pasted on the locked door.

Solar panel owners, through “net metering,” get credit for the power they generate by off-setting their electricity bills. But any power generated by solar panel owners beyond what they use goes back into NorthWestern’s grid for free — and NorthWestern then sells. Moreover, NorthWestern does not carry over the credits, but wipes them off their books annually while, of course, enjoying the profits it reaps from selling the over-production electricity.

The Public Service Commission’s job is to protect Montana consumers, not pad NorthWestern Energy’s profit margin. Nor is it to discourage the production of clean, secure, dispersed solar power, especially in light of the devastating climate impacts from centralized power sources such as coal-fired power plants. But that’s not happening.

Once again, a monopoly utility is squeezing Montana’s consumers “by the bulbs” while our Public Service Commission abandons consumers. And once again the only way we’re going to ensure our own affordable, livable future is by fighting against the rip-off policies and for sensible, clean renewable energy by electing Public Service Commissioners that will serve Montanans, not out-of-state utility corporations.

 

Cleaning Out the Anti-China Nutters

Wed, 2019-05-15 15:19

Inimitable to a fault, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating had been fairly quiet on his party’s policies till an impromptu press intervention last week. Catching two journalists of the ABC off-guard, Keating took little time to land a few blows against Australia’s foreign and domestic intelligence security officers.  They had, in Keating’s view, “lost their strategic bearings”.  The security agencies were effectively “running foreign policy”; when such matters eventuate, only one conclusion can be reached: “the nutters are in charge.”

For the former Labor prime minister, the China Syndrome had clotted the grey cells of the security wonks, blocking perception and clarity.  Security chiefs were knocking on the doors of Parliamentarians; prejudices were doing the rounds.  Australia, the United States and other likeminded powers had been in denial about the Middle Kingdom and its aspirations, seeing them as defence and security threats in various guises.  They had to “recognise the legitimacy of China”; it had to be respected for rising from poverty even if that particular story did not sit well with the United States.

Keating took a particularly sharp interest in John Garnaut, foreign correspondent and former national security advisor to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.  That particular China hand written in August 2018 that any spirit of democratisation worth its salt died with the protestors at Tiananmen Square in 1989. “Belatedly, and quite suddenly, political leaders, policy makers and civil society actors in a dozen nations around the world are scrambling to come to terms with a form of China’s extraterritorial influence described variously as ‘sharp power’, ‘United Front work’ and ‘influence operations’.”  In Garnaut’s view, the world’s many eyes were upon Australia to set an example.

Keating advocated a cleaning operation, a large broom applied with swiftness removing the likes of Garnaut and the carriers of paranoid whispers.  “Once that Garnaut guy came back from China and Turnbull gave him the ticket to go and hop into the security services, they’ve all gone berko ever since.”

On some level, Keating’s comments are bound to be relevant, even if they put the noses of such types as Peter Jennings at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute out of joint.  (No, especially if they do.)  Security chiefs and their cronies can get long in the tooth and worn in thinking.  Wrinkled and crusted, a clear-out is far from undesirable.  A salient reminder from Napoleon comes to mind: move your bureaucrats around once every five years; sedentary practices often result in unhealthy concentrations of power.

Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten was far more diplomatic, suggesting that his party had a good working relationship with the current chiefs, claiming respect and a co-operative working interest.  The potential prime minister is mindful who he will have to work with.  “The three Bs are the biggest threat to Bill Shorten once he’s in office: boats, bombs and bytes,” came an opinion from a senior official to the ABC.

A chance of sorts had been presented to the Liberal National government.  Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, generally quiet in this election, smelled an opportunity to use the Keating intervention.  “Since September 2014, Australia’s law enforcement agencies have disrupted 15 major terrorist attack plots and conducted 41 counter-terrorism operations, with 93 people charged.”  Such a statement reads like the body-count figures from the US effort in Vietnam: they are units of poor measure rather than attributes of effect.  But Dutton, like many a plodding police officer, misses the picture in favour of the stabbing daub.

Another effort was made by campaign spokesperson and Trade minister Simon Birmingham, speaking in a debate held in Adelaide.  Keating, he claimed, had insulted “the heads of our intelligence services”.  He did note that “Labor have distanced themselves from the remarks by Paul Keating” but found it hard to resist the point that the former PM “is not an isolated figure in terms of… Bob Carr and others who sit within the (Labor) ranks.”

Did the Coalition government have a better approach?  “We make sure we maintain a firm and consistent approach (towards China) and in doing so make sure we keep Australia’s economic interests strong (and) our national security interests strong too.”  Suitably weasel-like, in other words.

Labor’s Senator Penny Wong, also at the same event, expressed a degree of disgust (“really desperate,” she fumed), though it should only be treated in the context of her desire to be Australia’s next foreign affairs minister.  The China psychosis in Australian political thinking can be unpredictable, swaying between a “come and buy my coal” to “stay out of my backyard, Huawei”. Seeing the prospect of having to deal with the foot soldiers of the Middle Kingdom in a new government, Wong is attempting to play that Janus-faced game Australian politicians have proven rather bad at, whatever the likes of Garnaut and Jennings might think.

Not wishing to be either pleasing harlots or submissive doormats, yet wishing to keep a hand in the voracious Chinese market (Cathay, I hear you say!), the Australian political class has had to tailor, trim and modify their traditional fears of the Yellow Peril while still shouting from the roof tops about it.  Only the likes of mining magnate Clive Palmer can express unvarnished dislike for people he sees as his business competitors and hungry beyond satiation.  The rest, notably those wallahs buried in the security establishment, can rest easy that Keating’s eminently sensible suggestion will not come to pass.

Trump’s “Trade War” is a War on You

Wed, 2019-05-15 14:49

“It’s not China that pays tariffs,” Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace pointed out on May 12. “It’s the American importers, the American companies that pay what, in effect, is a tax increase and oftentimes passes it on to U.S. consumers.”

“Fair enough,” answered Larry Kudlow, head of US president Donald Trump’s National Economic Council, before trying to explain that indisputable fact away.

As Trump continues his “trade war” with the rest of the world (but China more so than other countries), more and more Americans are beginning to understand what’s happening here:

Punitive tariffs on Chinese and other foreign goods are simply corporate welfare. They are a mechanism for redistribution of wealth from American consumers and workers to the most politically connected American business owners. Those businesses can charge more for their product and still remain “competitive” because their product doesn’t have that extra tax levied on it.

In theory, some of that corporate welfare “trickles down” in the form of new jobs for Americans in those particular businesses. That effect seems to be more hype than reality, but even to the extent that it exists, it doesn’t create greater general prosperity. The “new jobs” are an artificial sugar high. Everyone else gets just a little bit poorer for each “new job” thus created.

As the late, great Henry Hazlitt pointed out in his classic Economics in One Lesson, it’s important not to ignore the unseen in favor of the seen.

When we are forced to pay more for one thing (steel, for example), we have less money left to spend on other things (shoes or groceries, for example). Protectionist politicians vigorously direct our attention to every “new job” their policies artificially create at our expense, while hoping we won’t notice the “old jobs” our decreased wealth eliminates (or makes less lucrative) in other industries.

That’s not the only way protectionism makes us poorer. Those artificially created “new jobs” also distort the labor market. They shoo workers away from enterprises in which their efforts are most naturally profitable to them, to their employers, and to the consumers of their product, into enterprises where the profitability is an expensive illusion created at their own expense and yours.

Trump’s “trade war” is indeed a war of sorts, powered by economic sanctions like those levied on Iran and North Korea. But the economic bombs he’s dropping are landing on American, not Chinese, heads.

Who is Our “Adversary”? A Question of Language

Tue, 2019-05-14 16:02

Photograph Source: United States Army – Public Domain

There’s a new word in town, folks – or rather an old word with a new meaning. It has become the fashion among politicians and journalists to describe nations like Russia, China, and Iran, and leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Ali Khamenei, as “adversaries.” This is a term that gives me the creeps both because of what it says and what it hides.

According to Webster-Merriam, adversary is another word for “an enemy or opponent,” but in today’s parlance it has become a blurry euphemism.  Russia and China are called adversaries by people who loathe and fear these governments, but who consider it crude, impolitic, and possibly dangerous to label them enemies. You go to war with enemies.  But what if you want to trade with them?  What if you want to trade with them and attack them, using methods short of bombs and bullets?

“Adversary” provides an answer by introducing a note – actually, a whole symphonic score – of ambiguity.  The Oxford Dictionary tells us that the word means “one’s opponent in a contest, conflict, or dispute.”  This is how an anti-Russian (or anti-Chinese, anti-Iranian, or anti-Anyone) critic can have his cake while eating it too.  The phrase “Russian adversary” conjures up a dangerous, long-lived and malicious enemy, reminding us that the term’s secondary meaning is “Satan; the Devil.” If challenged, however, the phrasemaker can always say, “I only meant that they are our opponents in a dispute. You know, like business competitors.”

Such a convenient blur! Since the opponent is an adversary, not necessarily an enemy, it’s ok to trade and negotiate with him instead of going to war. But, since he is an opponent, and therefore assumed to be “hostile” (another current buzzword), it’s also ok to punish him using such measures as economic sanctions, cyber-warfare, and covert activities.

The great expert on this sort of calculated linguistic sloppiness, of course, was George Orwell, the celebrated author of Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and 1984. Here is what he said about ambiguity in “Politics and the English Language” (1946):

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

In the case of words like adversary, “sheer cloudy vagueness” puts the matter too mildly. “Adversary” suggests more than temporary opposition or friendly competition. It is an epithet designed to make you clench your fists, even if you don’t throw the first punch. So, what happens if you don’t go along with someone who uses the word? Consider this Q & A:

Q:  Wait a minute.  Why do you call Russia (or China, or Iran) an adversary?

A:  Because the Russians interfered in our election.  Also, they annexed Crimea, helped keep Syria’s Assad in power, and support Ukrainian separatists.  (Alternatively, because the Chinese steal industrial secrets, the Iranians back armed groups like Hezbollah, and so forth.)

Q:  But nation-states do this sort of thing all the time – the United States most of all!For example, the Israelis, Saudis, and Americans spy on each other and interfere in each other’s domestic affairs nonstop.  They also do violent things of which other states strongly disapprove. Yet we don’t call Israel and Saudi Arabia adversaries.  We call them allies!

A: Well, the Saudis and Israelis areallies. They do not threaten U.S. power and global interests as the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians do.  They do not promote anti-democratic, anti-American ideologies.  And they do not have a history of hostility to the United States of America.

Now we begin to detect some of the real reasons for labeling another nation or people an adversary – but the answers given above require a bit of translation.

For example, it is said that those called adversaries “threaten U.S. power and global interests.”  Translation:they do not behave as they are ordered to by the world’s only superpower, an empire whose military forces are vastly more powerful than those of all the other powers, great and small, combined.  (Good lord – don’t they know who’s the boss?)

Another accusation states that adversaries represent “anti-democratic, anti-American” ideologies.  Translation: their societies are dominated by a small elite of bureaucrats and billionaires who don’t respect the law, while our society is . . . umm . . .  Forget it!

Third, we are told that adversaries have “a history of hostility” to the USA.  Translation:  The U.S. government has a history of hostility tothem.  Somehow, in producing a narrative of continuous conflict, we manage to forget America’s efforts to strangle the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian revolutions at birth, overthrow upstart regimes around the world, and maintain global hegemony by killing vast numbers of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. What this narrative also ignores are significant periods of cooperation such as World War II, when the Russians sacrificed 20 million people to enable the Allies to defeat Adolf Hitler.

My point here is not that nation-states like the United States, Russia, and China are harmless buddies.  Far from it.  They are organized, elite-dominated polities with violent proclivities representing what one might call the post-adolescent phase of human social development. Nevertheless, it makes no sense at all to single out a few such entities and label them adversaries, when what that term really reflects is the labeler’s own fear, hostility, and uncertainty about the relationship.

The United States defeated Russia in the Cold War.  Thirty years later, the Russians are reasserting their claim to be treated as a significant player in world politics.  Does this make Putin an adversary, or merely another participant in the geopolitical poker game?  Xi Jinping is the latest arrival at the table, one with a very large supply of chips and nerve.  Is he therefore an adversary or merely a player to be taken seriously?  Ali Khameini’s ambitions are far more limited; he wants to be a top-rated regional player.  Is he an adversary, or merely an opponent pro tem of certain players we have decided to label allies?

You may object that the metaphor is ill chosen; international politics is a matter of life and death, not a poker game.  But the only party to view the struggle for prosperity, respect, and a place in the sun as an all-or-nothing existential proposition is the monopolist.  To the American elite, China’s ambitious and self-protective economic development programs feel like a threat.  Ditto with regard to Putin’s assertion of Russian interests in bordering states and the Black Sea region.  This is notbecause China and Russia are adversaries, however, but because such moves threaten to turn a global monopoly into an oligopoly.  What the term obscures is the process by which a superpower-dominated world is becoming  multi-polar.

Weirdly enough, Donald Trump seems sometimes to have a better understanding of this development than the U.S. military and intelligence establishments and the right wing of the Democratic Party.  What Trump does not understand, however, is that the move towards multi-polarity will not produce a stable world order.  In the twentieth century, the “Great Game” of global power politics gave us two world wars.  In recent years, the game has become increasingly dangerous and dysfunctional, since it exacerbates rather than solves the underlying social problems that generate terrorism and other forms of violence.  And “violence” now includes a potential nuclear and thermonuclear firestorm.

For this reason, the only game worth playing from here on is one that transforms the current structure of global politics by moving from adversarial relations between nation-states to cooperative relations between peoples.  I hear that our Russian “adversaries” are creating a museum to commemorate the cooperation between Americans and Russians during the early days of World War II.  In Berlin, the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute conducts annual forums on topics like “Multipolarity and dialogue in global and regional developments: imagining possible futures” (2017).  Many other programs around the world, including some sponsored by my own university, are moving in a similar direction.

With a little luck and determination, we may live long enough to become participants in a human civilization.  In this effort, as George Orwell understood, language matters.  A first step, small but significant, will be to stop calling Russia, China, Iran, and other global neighbors adversaries.  Fellow players presently engaged in a dangerous game, we can recognize them now as future friends and partners.

The Mysterious “Sabotage” of Saudi Oil Tankers: a Dangerous Moment in Trump’s Escalating Conflict With Iran

Tue, 2019-05-14 16:00

Photo Source: U.S. Navy – Public Domain

Saudi Arabia’s claim that two of its oil tankers have been sabotaged off the coast of the UAE is vague in detail – but could create a crisis that spins out of control and into military action.

Any attack on shipping in or close to the Strait of Hormuz, the 30-mile wide channel at the entrance to the Gulf, is always serious because it is the most important choke point for the international oil trade.

A significant armed action by the US or its allies against Iran would likely provoke Iranian retaliation in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region. Although the US is militarily superior to Iran by a wide margin, the Iranians as a last resort could fire rockets or otherwise attack Saudi and UAE oil facilities. Such apocalyptic events are unlikely – but powerful figures in Washington, such as the national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo, appear prepared to take the risk of a war breaking out.

Bolton has long publicly demanded the overthrow of the Iranian government. “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” he said last year before taking office.

“The behaviour and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself.”

Bolton and Pompeo are reported to have used some mortar rounds landing near the US embassy in Baghdad in February as an excuse to get a reluctant Pentagon to prepare a list of military options against Iran. These would include missile and airstrikes, but it is unclear what these would achieve from the US point of view.

Paradoxically, the US and Saudi Arabia have been talking up war against Iran just as economic sanctions are seriously biting. Iranian oil exports have dropped from 2.8 to 1.3 million barrels a day over the last year and are likely to fall further. Inflation in Iran is at 40 per cent and promises by the EU, UK, France and Germany to enable the Islamic republic to avoid sanctions on its oil trade and banking have not been fulfilled. Commercial enterprises are too frightened of being targeted by the US treasury to risk breaching sanctions.

Iran is becoming economically – though not politically – isolated. This is in contrast to previous rounds of sanctions on Iran under President Obama prior to the nuclear deal when the reverse was true. One reason why it is unlikely that Iran would carry out sabotage attacks on Saudi oil tankers is that its strategy has been to play a long game and out-wait the Trump administration. Though the Iranian economy may be badly battered, it will probably be able to sustain the pressure. Much tighter sanctions against Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 did not lead to the fall of his regime.

The circumstance of the alleged sabotage at 6am on Sunday remain mysterious. Saudi Arabia’s energy minister Khalid al-Falih says the attack “didn’t lead to any casualties or oil-spill” but did cause damage to the structure of the vessels.

The incident has the potential to lead to conflict in the context of an escalating confrontation between the US and Iran. The rise in temperature reached particularly menacing levels this month as the US sent an aircraft carrier to the Gulf and Iran suspended in part its compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal after President Trump withdrew last year.

However, Iran has made serious efforts to show moderation and cultivate support from the EU, Russia and China. For this reason, it appears unlikely that it has had a hand in attacking the Saudi oil tankers. Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi asked for more information about what had really happened to the tankers. He warned against any “conspiracy orchestrated by ill-wishers” and “adventurism” by foreigners.

It is the unpredictability of US and Saudi foreign policy that has exacerbated the danger of military action – particularly when it comes to Iran. President Trump has accused the country of supporting “terrorism” and aggression in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia policy is even more mercurial ever since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took charge in 2015, initiating a war in Yemen, detaining the prime minister of Lebanon, locking up Saudi businessmen, and being accused by the US congress of being behind the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year.

The crown prince has displayed extreme hostility towards Iran since he took power. Saudi Arabia executed 33 members of its Shia minority on 23 April, accusing 11 of them of being spies for Iran, an overwhelmingly Shia country. The defendants said they had been tortured into making false confessions and Human Rights Watch said that none of them had received a fair trial.

In this febrile atmosphere, almost any incident, true or false – such as the unconfirmed sabotage of tankers or a few mortar rounds fired towards the US embassy in Baghdad – might provide the spark to ignite a wider conflict.

 

Pages

Hosted by Web Networks, Toronto

Powered by Drupal

Contact Brian

Brian Robinson
+85516445835 (in Cambodia)
1,000 Apologies, I had to remove my actual e-mail address from this page. I got really tired of sock puppets offering me free sexual favours. (And NO! I don't know how many of them were Russian, and it wouldn't change my vote!) So here's one of those crappy contact forms that I really hate. Did I mention I'm sorry?
Contact ME! (or don't)

Contact Brian 2.0

Skype: bbbrobin

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google+ icon
LinkedIn icon
Pinterest icon
Vimeo icon
YouTube icon

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer